The new Broadway comedy “The Cottage” begins with a pair of lovers in an English country house in 1923, the morning after their annual illicit tryst. Sylvia, played by the “Legally Blonde” star Laura Bell Bundy, is aflame with passion for her paramour, Beau, played by Eric McCormack of “Will & Grace.”
On an afternoon in mid-June, the cast wore street clothes as they did a stumble-through of the show at a rehearsal studio in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. When Beau, in a fit of desire, sank his teeth into Sylvia’s foot, McCormack was in fact gamely biting into Bundy’s sneaker top.
Ah, the glamour of acting!
There is a certain borrowed elegance, though, to the play itself. Arguably a farce — though the playwright, Sandy Rustin, rejects that term, which to her suggests stock characters and clowning — “The Cottage” is a feminist twist on witty British comedies in the Noël Coward mold.
“I’m really a huge fan of that whole genre of upper-crust British style,” said Rustin, whose best known play is the murder-mystery comedy “Clue,” adapted from the 1985 movie. “But the female characters often leave much to be desired. They’re often just there to serve the men. I was interested in finding a way into that genre where the women ruled the roost.”
It’s no accident that Rustin, an actor who learned sketch writing and improv at Upright Citizens Brigade, set “The Cottage” in the 1920s, as British women’s rights were gaining traction. But the feminism, for much of the play, is more insinuated than overt.
Only gradually does it become apparent that Sylvia, Bundy’s character, is the heroine of this ensemble piece, which starts previews on July 7 at the Helen Hayes Theater. Cheating with Beau, Sylvia is married to Clarke, who, in turn, is deep into an affair with Marjorie, Beau’s wife. All of them, and a couple of other lovers besides, turn up at what is, by Act II, a very crowded cottage.
The cast of six includes Lilli Cooper — a Tony Award nominee for “Tootsie,” seen most recently on Broadway in last year’s feminist farce, “POTUS” — as the heavily pregnant Marjorie. Alex Moffat, late of “Saturday Night Live,” plays Clarke, a role that taps Moffat’s talent for falling down stairs. Jason Alexander, of “Seinfeld” fame, directs.
“Comedy’s hard,” Alexander said, though at rehearsal he was an exuberant presence, watching from behind his music stand. “To make something light is heavy lifting.”
In the days after the stumble-through, he, Rustin and some of the actors spoke individually by phone about what it takes to pull off this nouveau-throwback play, in period style. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
It’s all about precision, darling.
SANDY RUSTIN Every single actor is walking onto the stage as if they are in a legit Noël Coward play, they’re in an Oscar Wilde play. And then it kind of comes off the rails. That reality sort of unravels.
LAURA BELL BUNDY I’m in, like, 140 out of 147 pages [of the script]. And let me tell you, these words, they are not normal to my vernacular. Remembering where all the “rathers” and the “darlings” go, I swear that has been the most difficult thing. If you don’t get the exact wording, it’s like, that’s not the style. And also you have to speak it so quickly, because that’s the rhythm.
‘Pace becomes a character.’
ERIC McCORMACK As Jason has said many times, these are all great words, but without the pace, without the absolute synergy of the six of us, they’ll just sit there. This becomes its own thing when the six of us are firing on all cylinders, and the pace becomes a character, virtually. The urgency of the play isn’t just the jeopardy of “Oh my God, somebody’s coming to the door,” as much as it is, we’re all kind of running for our lives. We’re dancing for our lives.
BUNDY There is a rhythm to comedy, especially stage comedy. The comedy is inside the way that some of those lines are being delivered, the pace in which they are, the volume in which they are. That is essentially the same as musical theater, or the same as multicamera comedy. Which is why I think Eric is nailing this. That’s also why Jason is nailing this.
The play is like a musical. Or Whac-a-Mole.
JASON ALEXANDER I call it the sort of nonmusical musical. With a musical number, everybody in it, even if they’re wildly separated from each other, they all understand the tempo, the intonation, the mood of the piece, the movement of the piece. This play and this cast require that in a very similar way, but there’s nobody keeping a drumbeat, and there’s nobody playing a melody. So they have to feel it internally with each other.
LILLI COOPER We’re all kind of cogs in this wheel. And there are six of us onstage sometimes. But, you know, the focus has to be on something very specific. So we need to learn how to blend in with the scenery in moments and pop forward in moments. In rehearsal the other day, I compared this play to a Whac-a-Mole. We need to figure out which mole, and when, do we pop out of the hole.
The script is a kind of score.
BUNDY When I lost my voice the other day, it was hard for me to convey all the tonality that, when you shift the tone of voice, can hit a punchline. No matter what the format is, whether it’s musical theater comedy or whether it is absent of music, there’s still music to it.
McCORMACK This role is literally a three-octave role. You need all of those notes to just sort of surf the wave of that very highfalutin English conversation.
Poses are drawn from the past.
ALEXANDER Can we find a common language of behavior and action and movement and playing style that is clearly rooted in what we now think of as the over-the-top styles of acting from the ’30s and ’40s? There’s a sort of a posing there that is just behaviorally different. I’ve said to Eric once or twice, “Eric, that arm gesture that you just made is very 2023.”
BUNDY The body language of [Sylvia] being this fairly well-to-do woman from the 1920s in Great Britain: How does that body hold itself? I’m figuring that out. Then as she begins to transform and become a more authentic version of herself that isn’t wrapped up in the niceties of the time and what a woman should be, how a woman should be behaving, how does the body language change? All of that is stuff that I’m having to be really calculated about.
Bodies are comedy fodder.
RUSTIN I tend to write really physical comedies, where it’s equal parts text and what’s happening to the bodies onstage. The two things for me are married. The humor comes from how these people are inhabiting their space.
COOPER I was fairly recently pregnant, a year and a half ago. It is so crazy how putting that [costume pregnancy] belly on truly brings me back. It’s like this sense memory. When I was pregnant, I kind of couldn’t believe it; it’s pretty wild that we grow humans inside ourselves. So there’s this absurdist element to it. There’s comedy in spatial awareness. Like, I physically take up more space when I have this belly on.
Pies, no. Stairs, yes.
McCORMACK Besides just being a hundred years old and not really wanting to fall down stairs anymore — I’ll leave that to Alex — what’s hard about physical comedy, mostly, is doing something that feels in the moment. We’ve all seen pies in the face and all that stuff. But finding an original moment, particularly in a moment of high angst or high anxiety, is just a great reward.
ALEX MOFFAT I’m interested to get into the theater and see what the stairs look like. Currently in our [rehearsal] space, it’s just a few stairs. I can [fall down them] six or seven times a day, as we have been doing. But if it’s like 12 stairs coming down from the upstairs of the cottage, we’ve got a lot of figuring out to do.
The political message? Sneak it in.
BUNDY I was very attracted to this play because of this epiphany this woman [Sylvia] begins to have — that her joy does not need to revolve around the love of a man. Women’s sexuality is so stigmatized. And the thing is, these truths about what it means to be a woman with sexual drive, that’s also making us laugh.
MOFFAT Hopefully it’s just a barreling freight train of guffaws. But absolutely it might surprise people with how the play has such a great, strong, feminist point of view. Just doing a really funny thing and taking people along for that ride, it can work as long as people get swept along in the comedy of it, in the story of it. And then maybe at the end they go, “Oh! That made an interesting point.”
COOPER One of my favorite lines in the show is [paraphrasing], “Well, maybe she doesn’t need a man.” It’s such a revelation to these people that they truly ponder it. That concept being so unfathomable to this generation is funny in itself. And feminist.